17 Feb 2022

Developing a framework for ethical learning technology in Higher Education

Developing a framework for ethical learning technology in Higher Education

Dr Maren Deepwell is the Chief Executive of ALT, the Association for Learning Technology, the leading professional body for Learning Technology in the UK, representing ~3,500 Members. Through her work with ALT, Maren supports a collaborative community for individuals and organisations from the education sector with a professional interest in using digital technologies for learning, teaching and assessment.

We’re excited to welcome Maren to the Collaboration Space on Friday 25th March for an in-depth roundtable discussion on ethical approaches to digital leadership. Ahead of the show, we sat down with Maren to find out more about this new ethical EdTech framework for professional practice in Higher Education.

We’ve been through an intensely transformative period for Higher Education. Have attitudes towards ethical approaches to strategy and practice changed during this time?

I think attitudes have changed, but more significantly awareness of the key questions that we need to answer has really increased. Tools that have become very commonly used during pandemic learning, such as online assessment or video conferencing, were much less widespread before 2020. Thinking about the ethical implications and impact of digital technology on students and staff has become more high profile as a result. Senior leadership must now have policies in place not only to ensure good digital governance but also to ensure that the institution creates a positive student experience. Strategies for the ethical use of technology must cover a wide variety of topics – including the digital footprint students create on their journey through Higher Education. We’re also seeing increased awareness of the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion when it comes to educational technology and its impacts on staff and students.

Right now, many institutions are working hard to improve their digital strategies. We're all looking for a better way to use educational technology, something beyond the crisis-response, and in that context trying to formulate an ethical approach by benchmarking your practice against what other institutions are doing is essential.

 

Staff have had to deal with a sudden and difficult shift in styles of teaching and learning, often resulting in increased workloads. Do you think that blended learning is here to stay? Or do we think that there's a risk that educators might slip back into old habits?

I have to say, I disagree that those are the only two options. We've all been working with and learning through technology since the 1990s. This is a really long movement and even when we think about the ‘traditional’ lecture or classroom setting prior to 2020, that was still a blended offering. There were still online resources, there were still a lot of digital elements playing an important role in communication and student support. So, I think that to say we’re going either all the way digital or back to a pre-digital setting is a false dichotomy.

I think the priority, particularly for digital leadership within Higher Education, is to paint a vision that is born of aspiration rather than necessity. We should be focused not just on where we are right now, but where we would ideally like to be.

There is definitely enthusiasm for this kind of approach across the sector, but as you rightly point out, the impact of the last two years isn’t to be underestimated. Digital leadership within institutions is now needed more than ever. The domain of learning technology was maybe slightly more delineated previously, but now we're seeing more senior leaders, researchers and other staff within universities getting involved in shaping a digital vision, and I think that is really key. Learning Technology professionals helping to shape that vision is one of the things I’m most excited about.

 

How has the increased adoption of technology in Higher Education raised new questions around digital leadership?

Across our UK-wide membership, we have seen an increase in the number of senior leaders who are becoming involved in digital strategy. As part of this process, leaders need to look back at what we have already learned about learning technology as well as looking ahead. There’s a substantial body of research and practice-based evidence that we can learn from. During the pandemic, many people didn't have the time to explore the resources and knowledge that we already have, and we are beginning to see deeper reflection taking place now. The key to successful digital leadership is thinking about the broader context, looking backwards as well as ahead and using examples of successful best practice from the past to shape the vision for the future.

It's important to emphasise that while the past two years have meant a big learning curve for many educators, the way we are now using technology isn't new. We already have a lot of the expertise we need here in the UK and across the international community.

 

So, what do you think are the key ethical concerns for students working in a more blended format?

Well, I think when it comes to the ethical dimension of digital in Higher Education, it’s essential that universities ensure the tools they are using can provide a parable experience for everyone. Some of the things we saw, particularly during the pandemic, highlighted discrimination based on algorithms inherent in certain types of tools or platforms, exemplifying the bleak version of the future that we don't want to be aiming for. It’s important that students are informed about the policies their institution has in place, and how these ensure that the tools being used work for everyone, e.g., whether they require facial recognition or require voice recognition. We need to ensure that all students have the same rich digital experience.

We have seen examples of proctoring software that doesn't recognize a POC, making it harder or impossible for a student to take an exam. When we encounter these types of scenarios, we encounter a fundamental problem in the design of the technology.  Our Members are part of an important discourse that is actively addressing how we can make the online element of education more inclusive, more accessible and open to everyone. These are important issues that universities need to address and improve on.

Alongside the technological considerations, students need us to adopt an ethic of care, and provide students with the tools they need to succeed and support learning for everyone.

 

Is there anything within this conversation that staff within universities should be paying particular attention to?

From the work that we've been doing over the last two years, and particularly findings from our Annual Survey, a key concern is around work-life balance and burnout. In some institutions, the online delivery that came into play during the crisis has just been tacked onto the existing workload prior to 2020. The same amount of resourcing is being provided to offer a fully hybrid model and, according to what we know, that's not sustainable. You need more resources if you want to deliver both online and in-person learning, and that is going to be a key issue for staff across the board and impacts on institutional strategy.

The other issue is skills development. We need to think about how we can reward staff for skills development and recognize the additional competencies they're developing. As the use of digital education is becoming more scaled up, the need for effective skills development is one of the core things that we've been kind of seeing coming to the foreground. It’s also something many institutions struggle to invest in – we've seen more investment in technology, IT infrastructure and support structures for students, but we haven't seen the same level of investment into staff support and skills development. The survey we've been running each year highlighted that as one of the areas where we've actually seen a decrease in investment. Importantly, that's one of the areas that many institutions who have successful digital strategies did invest in. So, a question for institutions currently tackling digital strategy is how, right from the ground up, are they supporting staff? Are they recognising new skills? How can we make it achievable for staff to use technology effectively whilst not overloading staff?

 

So, we can give staff all the best tools, but if they aren't able to use them in the best way, it's almost a waste of investing in that technology in the first place.

That's right. And that's why we have learning technology professionals. We can't expect every single member of staff within Higher Education to be an expert in all things digital. Learning Technology professionals who can help by working with academics – they are the experts who can help design courses, taking the time to find the best subject specific approaches. And that's why we've seen such an increase in the number of learning technology roles in education. We've seen such a huge demand, both from content creation and course design, all the way up to leadership positions. I'm excited that we're seeing the increase in the number of Learning Technologists at all levels in Higher Education.

 

What key takeaways can visitors expect to get from your roundtable session at Ahead by Bett?

Well, we're looking forward to meeting everybody at Ahead by Bett in March, and we're looking forward to sharing our development of the Framework for Ethical Learning Technology, which launched in late 2021. And just recently we've launched reflective self-assessment tools which you can use either as an individual or as a team to focus on a new tool, an overall project or your professional approach in general. These resources are free to use and open to everyone. For those participants who are joining us at Bett, you'll be able to learn all about how the framework works and then take away the resource to apply it in your own context.

 

What’s the most exciting thing about Higher Education right now?

I think, for me, there’s a lot of excitement in the sense that we need Higher Education more than ever and there are more people globally who want to engage in Higher Education. I think we now have a lot of scope to shape the next chapter, and hopefully in a manner that isn’t completely determined by pandemic dynamics. Actually, one of the sessions on the agenda for Ahead by Bett that I’m looking forward to is the keynote by Diana Laurillard on whether professional development is the new frontier in Higher Education. I think that's something I’m really excited to see the Higher Education sector take on – recognising the expertise that we need, and the potential of technology in practice. I think that's one of the spaces that I'm most excited about.

Maren Deepwell

Dr Maren Deepwell will be hosting a roundtable discussion within the Collaboration Space at Ahead by Bett. Join us at the ExCeL London from 23-25 March 2022 to explore the impact of digital technology on students and staff and how you can refine your understanding of ethical digital strategies.

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